Inpatient management of severe malnutrition: time for a change in protocol and practice

Ann Trop Paediatr. 2011;31(2):97-107. doi: 10.1179/146532811X12925735813887.


This review focuses on how to reduce the high mortality of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in African hospitals. The World Health Organization's 1999 manual for physicians (protocol) has not resulted in case-fatality rates of under 5%, even in published research studies from Africa, far less in district and central hospitals which do not record case-fatality rates. It is suggested that the following eight changes to the protocol need to be considered if we are serious about reducing case-fatality rates in African hospitals: (1) use of low lactose, low osmolality milk feeds during the early stage of treatment, especially for HIV-exposed infants and diarrhoeal cases; (2) more cautious use of high carbohydrate loads (ORS, ReSoMal, sucrose and 10% dextrose) during initial stabilisation; (3) more careful grading up and down of feed volumes according the child's responses during the early rehabilitation phase; (4) rapid rehydration of children in shock with Ringer's lactate, as for well-nourished children, with closer monitoring for heart failure; (5) greater use of 3rd-generation cephalosporin and fluoroquinolone antibiotics (e.g. ceftriaxone, ciprofloxacin) to treat sepsis owing to resistant organisms; (6) consider adding glutamine-arginine supplements as gut-protective agents in addition to zinc and vitamin A; (7) the addition of phosphate to existing potassium and magnesium supplements for those at risk of the refeeding syndrome; and (8) introduce better tools for diagnosis and clearer management of combined HIV and tuberculous infections in infants. Many will argue that these suggestions are unaffordable or impractical. On the contrary, cases of SAM requiring hospital admission need to be allocated more resources, including better nursing care, better diet and better medication. Resources made available for other childhood inpatient services such as ID and HIV dwarf those for severe malnutrition. Of course, prevention is always a better investment, including improving breastfeeding rates, improving complementary feeding practices and using ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) or similar supplements for those failing to thrive in the community, but SAM is unlikely to disappear from our hospitals, and these children need to be better managed if we are serious about reducing mortality.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / administration & dosage
  • Diet / methods*
  • HIV Infections / complications
  • Humans
  • Inpatients
  • Malnutrition / diagnosis
  • Malnutrition / mortality
  • Malnutrition / therapy*
  • Tuberculosis / complications


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents